Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 8, 2008

ABORTION 'COMPROMISE'.... The Atlantic's Ross Douthat had an interesting item in the New York Times yesterday on abortion politics, specifically pushing back against the notion that the Republican Party's defeats in 2008 were the result of voter frustration with the GOP's opposition to abortion rights.

Now, I'm not altogether sure just how common the argument is. In fact, while I can think of plenty of political observers who are urging the party to modernize its approach to culture-war issues, I don't know of any prominent voices blaming the Republican defeats on its abortion position, making this something of a straw-man.

But for the sake of discussion, let's go ahead and concede Douthat's central point -- the GOP had a spectacularly bad year, but it's a mistake to say the "pro-life movement" is solely responsible.

Douthat's other point, however, was more problematic.

Compromise, rather than absolutism, has been the watchword of anti-abortion efforts for some time now. Since the early 1990s, advocates have focused on pushing largely modest state-level restrictions, from parental notification laws to waiting periods to bans on what we see as the grisliest forms of abortion. [...]

So the question isn't whether the anti-abortion movement can change, adapt and compromise. It's already done that.

Douthat used the word "compromise" nine times in the piece, hoping to drive home the point that the pro-life movement has been anything but inflexible over the last couple of decades.

I think he's mistaken. Indeed, the evidence of conservative willingness to "compromise" on abortion is surprisingly thin. In 2005, for example, pro-life and pro-choice Democrats crafted the Prevention First Act, which aimed to reduce the number of abortions by taking prevention seriously, through a combination of family-planning programs, access to contraception, and teen-pregnancy prevention programs. Dems sought Republican co-sponsors. Zero -- literally, not one -- from either chamber endorsed the measure.

What's more, this year, pro-life activists in South Dakota and Colorado forced strikingly inflexible anti-abortion measures onto their statewide ballots. Both lost, but it was a reminder of the movement's "absolutism" on the issue.

Douthat's correct that activists have fought battles over related-but-peripheral issues such as parental notification laws, waiting periods, and access to emergency contraception, but that doesn't necessarily point to compromise. Rather, activists have pursued these alternate routes a) while continuing the fight for a ban on all abortions; and b) because they were picking the fights they thought they could win.

If the right is open to compromise on abortion, the proof is hiding well.

Steve Benen 8:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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"Compromise" means they haven't shot any doctors lately.

Posted by: dr2chase on December 8, 2008 at 8:24 AM | PERMALINK

A few years ago I heard George Weigel give a talk and he made it quite clear the "compromises" of the anti-abortion movement are simply a tactic. None of these smaller issues are ends in themselves. Anyone suggesting that these groups have compromised on their overall goal of making abortion illegal is not correct.

Posted by: DanG on December 8, 2008 at 8:29 AM | PERMALINK

This is part of the Republican MO. Take inflexible positions, call opponents terrorists, baby killers, etc., and then when you start losing elections, fall back on the mantra, "All we ever asked for was bipartisan civility".

Posted by: Danp on December 8, 2008 at 8:33 AM | PERMALINK

None of these "peripheral" moves are compromises or exercises in reasonableness. Not at all.

They are primary weapons in an approach best summarized as: If we can't make it illegal, we'll make it impossible.

In states like Alabama and S. Dakota, abortion is legal, and completely unavailable.

Posted by: RussL on December 8, 2008 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

Wasting time reading Douthat? DON'Tdouthat.

At this point conservative pundits should just be ignored, or laughed at if you must pay some attention to them.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on December 8, 2008 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

I don't for a moment believe there is an iota of interest in compromise of any sort by the anti-choice movement. It's a religious movement, for crying out loud; they're not allowed to compromise.

But I also think Douthat knows that perfectly well and therefore that his article has nothing to do with what the anti-choicers are really thinking or doing.

Rather, I think it's a piece of post-election positioning, both within the GOP to blunt the power of the hard-line culture warriors (under the theory that perception is reality) and in the larger political arena to soften the image of the GOP.

See, they're really just pussycats. All that fire-breathing is just for show. All that ugliness is just ... uh ... well, who you gonna believe, me or your lyin' eyes?

The anti-choicers want compromise, we're a center-right country, and come spring we will all flutter our gossamer wings and fly to the moon.

Good luck with that, Ross.

Posted by: bleh on December 8, 2008 at 8:47 AM | PERMALINK

I love how Republicans claim to be all about preventing abortion, and then force abstinence only "education" on teens. They spent millions on abstinence only, instead of comprehensive sex ed, which is proven to reduce pregnancies and therefore abortions, as well as STDs, and you know what the difference is between abstinence only and no sex ed? Nothing.

So, they abandoned a proven reducer of abortions, thus increasing abortions, and call that compromise. When we call them on it, they start crying bipartisanship. I think someone needs a dictionary.

Posted by: Personal Failure on December 8, 2008 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

Modern conservatives have to mask their real intentions by denying their intentions, even if only to convince themselves. It's a disorder, I tell you...

Posted by: beep52 on December 8, 2008 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

Great post, Steve. And the first comment.

Posted by: Gore/Feingold '16 on December 8, 2008 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

Yeah, abortion will be a real winner for Republicans in the future. No one gives a shit about that crap right now. It's an issue for a strong economy that afford extravagance, not a crippled crumbling empire diving into a depression.

Posted by: grinning cat on December 8, 2008 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

It's sad, Steve, that you and so many others who know better blithely use the phrase "pro-life." Implicitly, that makes all of us who favor choice into "pro-death" fanatics.

I absolutely and utterly refuse to ever let the phrase "pro-life" pass my lips or my keyboard (except twice in this comment). My phrase -- and I really do wish everyone who believes in a woman's choice -- is, and forever shall remain, "anti-choice."

Posted by: K on December 8, 2008 at 9:16 AM | PERMALINK

If the right had truly compromised, than this post we wouldn't exist. The culture war on abortion would be over.
The truth is a "compromise" has existed for quite a while already in the form of laws allowing early-term only abortions. I don't really follow the abortion topic, but it seems to me that the rightwing is the driving force behind the issue and their intolerance of ANY compromise is what fuels them. Hence, the takeover of the Republican party by a set of people driven by very narrow issues. The modern Republican party is the party of anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-tax, and anti-resolution. Period. That's all they do. That's all they think about. That's all they care about. The rest of governance doesn't interest them. That's why we are in the shit-hole we're in now with the economy, the environment, two wars, abuse of freedoms and privacy, etc.etc.etc.

Posted by: palinoscopy on December 8, 2008 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

what digby said re this article.

Posted by: jayackroyd on December 8, 2008 at 9:32 AM | PERMALINK

You got that right, K! Anti-abortion, anti-choice -- but not "pro-life." Especially when most of them are far-right-wingers who support unnecessary wars such as the Iraq War, support capital punishment, oppose exceptions for the life of the mother, and have no problem with putting bounties on doctors' heads. If any group hs clearly proven not to have a claim to being pro-life, it's this gang.

Posted by: gradysu on December 8, 2008 at 9:46 AM | PERMALINK

Without anti-abortion and/or Pro-Life, St Sarah d'Arc would not have her small army, er base.

Posted by: berttheclock on December 8, 2008 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

Fully agree with K, gradysu, etc., above: time to stop using "pro-life" in discussions about abortion. "Anti-choice" is best, in my view.

May seem like a relatively insignificant point, but look at what the right wing has been able to do with the term "liberal." Even many liberals are loathe to use the word to describe themselves (and I'm not looking for a debate on the difference in meaning between "progressive" and "liberal").

Wingnuttia has been remarkably successful in getting the left to adopt words and phrases that suit the right's interests. It means that they often get to steer the debate...time to turn the tables...

Posted by: JM on December 8, 2008 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

I think Douthat is pushing the meaning of "compromise" in a way that would make Ho Chi Minh blush. Compromise means making an agreement that balances the interests and principles of all the parties in a controversy. It doesn't mean taking everything you can get away with now and planning to come back for more later.

Posted by: paul on December 8, 2008 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

Both the question and the answer are Douthatt fantasies. The republican party will continue to promote anti-abortion rhetoric because it's a proven vote getter for them. They give that up and they won't see the inside of the oval office and/or a majority in Congress until the democrats become so corrupted with power that we people throw the bums out.

What Douthatt calls compromise, I call erosion of rights. And they will continue to chip away until the stone looks like the statute the far right wants.

Posted by: CDW on December 8, 2008 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

I don't think they picked those fights over the peripheral issues just because they thought they could win. The Republican politicians supported those measures to bolster rightwing voter turnout.

They know they can't undo Roe vs. Wade and probably wouldn't even if they could, it's too good a base issue to give up. They also know they'd immediately be faced with the same kind of energized voter outrage from our side they've been generating on their side of the divide for decades. So they go with the incremental approach.

Posted by: markg8 on December 8, 2008 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

The only time someone used the term "pro-life" in a way that I found appropriate was when someone pointed out that Adolf Hitler was very, very STRONGNLY pro-life. Der Fuhrer absolutely HATED the idea of a woman controlling her own body. She hadda crank out little 'uns for the greater glory of the Fatherland.
Normally I use the more accurate term "antiabortionists" partially 'cuz they absolutely hate the term.

Posted by: Rich2506 on December 8, 2008 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with K. These people are most notably NOT pro-life. If they were, they would be strictly Vegan, anti-death penalty, anti-violence, anti-war, and would be working to ensure that no one in the U.S. ever died due to lack of health care or malnutrition brought on by poverty. They sure wouldn't be bombing women's clinics and shooting doctors. Instead, they've merely focused their efforts on making sure women have no choices. It goes so far beyond abortion that it's terrifying. They don't want women to have the choice of when, whether, or how to have sex, or with whom (apparently Daddy picks out your husband and you submit like a good "christian" woman). They don't want women to have the right data to make an informed decision about contraception or family planning. They don't want women to get an education or work or be independent lest she be able to leave her abusive partner or even think for herself. They sure as hell don't want women to have the choice of carrying a pregancy to term or aborting. They're not "pro-life," they are anti-woman and anti-choice. End of effin' story.

Posted by: Keori on December 8, 2008 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

My phrase -- and I really do wish everyone who believes in a woman's choice -- is, and forever shall remain, "anti-choice."

I kinda like "forced birthers" myself. Puts what they really want front and center -- to go back to the pre-contraception days where having sex automatically meant getting pregnant.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on December 8, 2008 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

I think that abortion should be legal subject to reasonable restrictions (e.g., no 3rd term abortions except to protect the mother's life or to avoid severe physical harm to the mother, but no limits on abortion in the first 3 mos). I guess that places me in the majority, according to most polls.

What I find even more infuriating than the anti-abortion zealots, though, are the pro-abortion zealots. It is their insistence on protecting Roe v. Wade as a Constitutional mandate that has prevented the majority from reaching a compromise that satisfies most people. If the Court had not reached out and invented a right to abortion out of whole cloth, we would have come to a sensible compromise like every other major Western country.

Posted by: DBL on December 8, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

They will never compromise because they aren't just anti-abortion, they are anti-sex outside of marriage, and anti-feminist. All three together mean no birth control, no "choice" about when a woman has sex, and no abortion under any circumstances.

Besides, you are ignoring the underlying racist undertones of the argument (that also takes into consideration the "culture wars"), that too many white women are choosing abortion and allowing the blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims to proliferate to the point where WASPs are getting obsolete.

Posted by: Always Hopeful on December 8, 2008 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

as usual, when a read a column like this, i wonder what world the writer lives in....

he never actually wrestles with the idea that the gop's "no abortion ever" stance hurt in the polling booth...i bet it did...especially with people under 30, who overwhelmingly voted for obama....

what's left of the moderates in the gop agree...throwing the chrisitianists and the fetus-huggers overboard is the best way to broden the party's appeal...

luckily for me, ross and company will provide the pushback to those folks...and keep the tiny base intact and the party a minority...

Posted by: dj spellchecka on December 8, 2008 at 5:40 PM | PERMALINK

When I read Douthat's article, in addition to the flaws mentioned here, was the main flaw that all the examples that he gave for how abortion was involved in the loss were actually examples of how the rightwing christianist movement in general was responsible. Abortion was only part of it, and a small part at that. In addition there was the homophobia and the bits about school and other public prayer and the insistence on abstinence with associated programs and opposition to birth control and many more. The whole thing turned people off, not just the antiabortion part.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on December 8, 2008 at 9:34 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, go figure, the christian right is so unhappy in their own bedrooms, they feel the need to try and control what's going on in others!!!

Apparently, Larry Craig wasn't getting what he needed at home, so he searched for it in the men's restroom.

Mark Foley, wanted to be a sugar-daddy, so he chased underage male pages in the whitehouse.

And all the sexually repressed GOP-ers had the most passionate wet-dream when Sarah Palin winked over the tv - not to mention George Bush did the same thing when he battled Al Gore on tv.

Posted by: annjell on December 8, 2008 at 10:47 PM | PERMALINK



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